Steppenwolf’s “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” Gets it Right

Pictured (L to R): Sydney Charles and Steppenwolf ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper in Duchess! Duches s! Duchess! by Vivian J.O. Barnes, directed by Weyni Mengesha , presented as part of the Steppenwolf NOW virtual stage. Photo credit Lowell Thomas

Artistic performances of all kinds are brought to us virtually these days. Sadly, the adaptation to this medium is frequently less than satisfying.  However, recently,  three virtual theater productions were “right on”.  These excellent performances came my way in rapid succession employing elements of virtual presentation expertly.  The most recent was Steppenwolf’s production, “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” which was written by Vivian J.O. Barnes, and directed by Weyni Mengesha, and features two outstanding actors, ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper with Sydney Charles.  There are many remarkable things about this thirty-five-minute play – its power, incisiveness, complexity, and raw truth.

Pictured Sydney Charles in the role of “ The Duchess” in Steppenwolf’s virtual production, Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! by Vivian J.O. Barnes, directed by Weyni Mengesha . The fourth of six plays premiering on the Steppenwolf NOW virtual stage, www.steppenw olf.org/now . Photo credit Lowell Thomas

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! looks at the hidden costs of being the “luckiest girl in the world.” Playwright Vivian J.O. Barnes shares, “The play explores the bigger question of what it means to be a Black woman entering institutions that seem eager to have you but aren’t necessarily built to support you, how you start to adapt in order to survive once you’re inside of them, and the impact of bringing other people like you along.”

Click here to watch Vivian J.O. Barnes in conversation with Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. 

Barnes was inspired to write this play as a monologue in 2018 after seeing Kate Middleton “paraded” before the press a few days after giving birth. The contrast between being a sort of captive while seeming to be on top of the world gave her pause.  Once Meghan Markle came upon the scene, the monologue turned into a dialogue.

Pictured Steppenwolf ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper in the role of “ The Soon – to – b e – Duchess” in Steppenwolf’s virtual production, Duchess! Duchess! Duchess, Photo credit Lowell Thomas

Vivian wrote the initial draft in 2018; and Steppenwolf filmed the play in Nov/Dec 2020. With the Meghan & Oprah interview coming out on March 7 and the already scheduled release  of the play on March 10th, it is truly uncanny timing!

The play pulls the viewer into a deep dive exploring rules and trade-offs.  Does silence equal safety?  If appearances are all that matters, what happens to the person being observed? What are the means by which the individual can maintain who they are?

A number of interactions take place in the play that are remarkable.  As the duchess and the duchess to be meet for the first time, the duchess to be assumes the duchess will be her friend and asks the name of the duchess.  “Call me duchess”, she is told. There are many references in the play to “leaving one’s body” to get away from the stress of the crowds and the press and always being watched. Meghan Markle in her interview referred to this phenomenon on her wedding day.

As you watch these two women seated across from one another, alternately friendly and then, not so much, it is impossible to imagine they were not in the same space. Supporting the story, which hinges on the characters sharing the same physical space, Steppenwolf’s creative team pulled off an extraordinary undertaking by filming remotely in the actors’ separate apartments and stitching the footage together to ensure strict safety restrictions. The actors were shipped remote-controlled cameras, curtains, laptops, lighting equipment, costumes, a set piece and dozens of props. The production team provided hours of remote instruction on camera and lighting setup, and wardrobe, hair and makeup consultants gave guidance over Zoom.

Duchess! show graphic_Designed by Christopher Huiza

Creative Director Joel Moorman shares, “If we’ve done our job right, no one will know that the actors aren’t in the same room. The audience won’t know the lengths we went through to make the video seamless until the credits begin to roll and the individual footage is shown. It’s an incredible feat that we’ve accomplished and we’re thrilled to make this outstanding new work possible.”

The Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! creative team includes Pornchanok Kanchanabanca (Sound Design and Original Music); Joel Moorman (Creative Director); Lowell Thomas (Director of Photography and Video Editor); Trevor Bowen (Hair & Makeup Consultant); JC Clementz, CSA (Artistic Producer and Casting Director); Claire Haupt (Production Manager); Laura D. Glenn (Production Stage Manager); and Christine D. Freeburg (Assistant Production Stage Manager).

Sydney Charles,photo credit: Joel Maisonet

About Steppenwolf NOW

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! is the fourth of six breakthrough stories—all of varying formats and lengths—written by America’s most talented voices to be released on the Steppenwolf NOW virtual stage over the coming months. This past fall, Steppenwolf NOW launched with the filmed play, What Is Left, Burns by James Ijames and directed by Whitney White, which received critical acclaim. It was followed by a two-act radio play Wally World by Isaac Gómez and co-directed by Isaac Gómez and Lili-Anne Brown. This January, Red Folder, Steppenwolf’s first animated short, was released. The piece was written, directed and illustrated by ensemble member Rajiv Joseph and narrated by ensemble member Carrie Coon. Three additional productions will debut over the coming months: full season details below. Once released, all the productions are available to stream through August 31, 2021.

Weyni Mengesha, photo credit O’Shane Howard, Courtesy of Universal Music Canada

All six productions are available to stream with purchase of a Steppenwolf NOW virtual membership ($75; discounted $50 for essential workers, artists, students, teachers) visit steppenwolf or call Audience Services at 312-335-1650.

Celeste M. Cooper, photo credit Juli Del Prete

Photos: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

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